Home | News    Wednesday 31 December 2003

Rights-Egypt: Sudanese refugees say racism pervades Land of Exile

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CAIRO, Dec 30, 2003 (IPS) — The most stressful part of Joseph’s day is leaving home. Young men taunt him, merchants overcharge him and children throw stones while their proud fathers look on.

The Sudanese farmer who fled to Egypt after government forces torched his house and threatened his family says ignorance and racism pervade Egyptian society.

"Egyptians judge you by the colour of your skin," he says. "If you have dark skin, they treat you like a dog."

Joseph is among more than 10,000 Sudanese living in Egypt who are officially recognised as refugees by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Thousands more have applied for recognition as refugees, and are awaiting interviews to determine their status.

"The most important thing that these people have in common is the right to reside in the country lawfully," says Karim Atassi, director of media relations at UNHCR. Egypt is obliged to protect refugees and asylum seekers under the 1951 Geneva Convention as well as the 1969 Organisation of African Unity Convention on Refugees.

The UNHCR acts on behalf of the Egyptian government to screen refugee applicants, granting them refugee status only if they fulfill the necessary criteria. It processes thousands of applications each year, and rejects 75 percent of them.

The agency aims to make the critical distinction between a refugee and a migrant.

"A refugee is someone who left his country for fear of persecution or because of general insecurity in the region, and cannot return home," says Atassi. "A migrant is someone who left his country in order to improve his economic situation. The important difference is that a migrant can return home at any time."

But most Egyptians find it hard to tell a refugee from a migrant.

Cairo street vendor Mamdouh Hussein is aware of the civil war in neighbouring Sudan that has claimed two million lives and displaced millions more. But he has no kind words for Sudanese refugees.

"They come here to take our jobs and get visas to go to Europe and America," he says. "Why can’t I get a visa or money to support my family. I’m poor too."

Hussein admits he treats black Africans, especially rival street vendors, with contempt. "If they don’t like it then they should go home," he says.

Going home is not an option for Fatma who fled Sudan three years ago after security officers tortured and raped her. She has applied for refugee status, and works in the meantime as a house cleaner. She prefers to work for foreigners, who she says generally pay better and treat her respectfully. Like all asylum seekers in Egypt, Fatma cannot get a work permit, or financial assistance from foreign agencies. She has to work illegally during the 18 months or so it takes UNHCR to evaluate a case.

Employers often exploit this fact. They hire desperate asylum seekers, and treat them badly, or refuse to pay them.

The situation is not much better for registered refugees who are eligible for work permits, health care and free education for their children — but rarely able to find any of these.

A new security arrangement could soon bring an end to Sudan’s civil war. But until a final peace settlement is hammered out, aid organisations say it is too risky for refugees to return.

In the meantime Sudanese are finding Egyptian streets increasingly hostile. Reports of harassment and assault have increased in recent years.

Victims are often afraid to go to the police for fear of deportation or further humiliation. Dikitawaka, a Sudanese asylum seeker tries to avoid the police, but they often stop him in the street and demand to see his papers. This is usually a ploy to extort money, but it is better to pay than to risk jail on trumped up charges of drug peddling, he says.

Fear of arrest keeps many dark-complexioned people indoors. Hundreds of Africans of various nationalities have reportedly been detained and held without charge during security sweeps.

"A microbus stopped in front of me and a security officer said, ’Hey Sudanese, come here’," recalls Dikitawaka. "Two officers pushed me into the microbus...and when they found my address they went to my apartment and arrested everyone in my family."

Detainees report being held in squalid, cramped cells and denied adequate food, water or medicine. Police often refuse to acknowledge refugee identification cards or appointment slips issued by the UNHCR, though most refugees and asylum seekers are released within three days.

The Ministry of Interior denies targeting black Africans, but officials express regret that district police officers sometimes commit excesses in response to increased substance abuse and crime among the African community.

Several Sudanese who have been detained suspect that the periodic roundups — and indeed racism itself — are spurred by a soured economy and rumours that migrant African workers are stealing Egyptian jobs.

The police raids and racially motivated attacks are a constant reminder to Sudanese refugees and asylum seekers just how vulnerable they are. "If you don’t have anything you absolutely have to do, you don’t leave your home," says Sudanese asylum seeker Jok Aroub.

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The Sudan Tribune editorial team.

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